Meet the Reader: “Who Said This Was Going to Be Easy?”

I heard three comments recently – all from writers of scripts that I had analyzed – that absolutely floored me.

One was from the author of a script that was set in a specific industry, one that I happen to be very familiar with and one that the writer clearly didn’t know at all. He got most of the details of this world wrong — not just inconsequential background items, but also primary, bedrock elements. As a result, the writer had constructed a plot that turned on events that simply could not occur in this particular industry. When I told the writer this, his reply was, “How important is accuracy, anyway?”

The next was from a writer of the second draft of a script whose first draft I had reviewed not long before. I thought the initial version had a solid and interesting premise, but that the development and execution were sorely lacking. I provided the author with approximately ten pages of fairly extensive notes on how to better develop and enhance the script to make the most of its considerable potential. To my mind, it should have taken several months of diligent work to properly address all of these items, but the writer had the script back to me in just under two weeks. From what I could gather, she had done a cursory pass to perfunctorily address some of the more glaring problems and ignored the rest. As a result, my response was pretty much the same as it was the first time around – I told her that I thought her idea had a lot of potential, but that it was going to need considerable rewriting before it would be ready to be submitted to the marketplace. At this, she made a disgusted, clicking noise and then demanded to know, “How many times are you going to make me rewrite this thing?”

The third comment came from a writer that asked me to assess his script, which he warned me probably wasn’t too good, but warned me not to give him too many notes because if I did, he wouldn’t address them because “it was too hard.”

I found these comments to be deeply perplexing. It wasn’t hard to understand these writers’ attitudes – all three of them seemed to think that screenwriting should be simple and effortless, something that could be tossed off in a few short weeks and that didn’t need to be worked at with any degree of commitment or seriousness. What I couldn’t understand is where these attitudes came from — where did these people get the idea that screenwriting should be easy?

I think it comes in part from the ever-expanding screenwriting support industry – from the gurus that promise to teach you the “secrets” of writing a smash hit script in “only” three weeks or ten days or eleven-and-a-half nanoseconds or whatever. It may also come from those screenwriting programs that ask you to input a few characters and plot ideas and then spit out a preformatted, prefab story for you, making it seem as if quality screenwriting is no more complicated than whipping up a batch of instant oatmeal (a word to the wise — every script that I have ever read that was generated by such programs has been absolutely dreadful). The idea that screenwriting is easy might also spring from the great spec boom of the 1990s, a period when a lot of high-concept but low-quality scripts sold for many millions of dollars, making it seem that all you had to do was throw together a bunch of half-baked pages around a moderately cool concept and then sit back and wait for the bucks to roll in. Finally, I suspect that it comes in part from anxiety – from that fear all writers have that we are desperately untalented and that nothing we do is ever any good. If you can talk yourself into the notion that screenwriting is easy, then you can get it over with quickly and not have to face the months and months of agonizing self-doubt that true, good writing involves.

I implore you not to fall victim to these attitudes. I know that we all have doubts about our talents and abilities (although if it’s any consolation, all of the really great writers I know struggle with the same worries. Only the terrible ones seem to be completely confident), but if you are serious about being a writer, then you must accept that fact that there are no shortcuts, no “secrets,” no easy steps, and no quick ways around. Writing is a craft and an art — it requires deep personal investment and lots and lots (and lots) of hard work. No one is interested in half-baked ideas or sloppy execution and real writers shouldn’t be either. Write because you have a story that you are passionate to tell, not just to make money (most successful scripts – even those built on highly commercial concepts – sell because their writers care deeply about them and execute them with great energy, excitement, and style). If you conceive an idea that you feel is good enough to be turned into a screenplay (and eventually a movie), then you should look forward to spending not days or weeks, but months (and maybe even years) researching it, plotting it out, and then working as intensely as you possibly can over drafts and drafts and drafts to develop and hone your script to make it the best it can possibly be.

Doing so will not guarantee you a sale (because nothing will – that is up to fate and whim and chance as much as it is to good writing), but it will assure you of having a thoroughly satisfying creative experience. That’s the only part that’s solely up to you and the one that you should revel in.

13 thoughts on “Meet the Reader: “Who Said This Was Going to Be Easy?”

  1. Jim

    Great advice. I’ve been working on an historical adventure for three years now. The amount of research one has to do just to write a page or two accurately and honestly is immense. I am still excited about the idea and reading your advice has been a big pick-me-up. Thanks!

  2. ruth

    As a script consultant I’ve heard these comments and many more including “isn’t it enough to have a solid first act? the rest doesn’t really matter does it?” I encourage the writers I work with to hang in there and keep rewriting. Especially if their goal is not just to get the piece optioned but to stay attached as the writer. As a first time writer you not only have to have a great idea but you need to prove your ability to write. A good first act or a handful of well written scenes just isn’t enough. It takes commitment and passion to write a good screenplay and learning to love the process of rewriting will not only result in a better piece but, as you say, assure you of having a satisfying creative experience.

  3. Jamie

    This is article is is about the essence of writing, whether a screenplay, novel, graphic novel or otherwise; stories take TIME to mature, breath, live, die and ultimately be reborn; only then can the experience be transcibed in print. “A true artist, breaths life into a blank piece of paper, conversely a hack simply wants to fill the blank page.”

  4. Andrew

    I am currently heading into my 13th week of my first screenplay, and let me tell you, this has been no cake-walk. I knew it wouldn’t be easy right from the start, but I was not fully aware of the time and dedication I needed to devote to not only ‘writing’, but coming up with a sound concept, developing that concept, doing research, developing characters, plot, etc and being able to tie it all together in a package that would appeal in film format. I mostly previously wrote short stories, and this has been a far jump into the middle of the ocean for myself. I have resources and contacts to help me though, and I think that encourages me to continue pushing forward at a steady pace. I take into account that I need to try and make everything work, because if I see faults in my final work, then there is the possibility that others will too.

  5. BuddhaScribe

    I’m glad that I never thought writing a script would be easy. I know it’s hard and there have been a few times were I had to step back from it. The hardest part was stepping back and knowing that I’m on track again. I’m rewritting what I have for the 4th-5th time 🙂

  6. Jackie

    I had this delusion that almost everyone would love my screenplay. In a heartbeat, the readers proved me wrong.
    This lesson has taught me that screenwriting is not as easy as it seems. No matter how difficult the task, I know one day I will be a successful living screenwriter. I just need to get more people to read my work.

  7. Ryan

    I agree, writing is a varied animal. It took me ten years to write my (first draft) novel, but only 6 weeks to write a (first draft) screenplay based on a suppplied treatment. Courage is in seeing it through to a finished copy, success is getting it to the next level.

  8. Blair

    Honestly, it sounds like the people you were critiquing aren’t very serious about screenwriting. I just completed a script that took me almost 2 1/2 years to write. Now, had I know in advance it would have taken me that long, I honestly probably wouldn’t have bothered. That said, if you have an idea that you believe in, see it through. If you’re looking for shortcuts, then you’re obviously doing this for the right reasons. Even if my script doesn’t sell (and, let’s face it, it probably won’t), I still think it’s great and I’m thrilled that I had the balls to see it through exactly (and even better, in some ways) than I originally conceived it. So now I don’t even have to wonder… but I wonder about those who think screenwriting is easy. It couldn’t be harder. I’ve written feature stories for major magazines of all genres and writing a screenplay is monumentally harder. It takes work, patience and, most of all, belief.

    If writing a screenplay taught me anything, it’s how unbelievably hard and nuanced it has to be. So I give undue credit to anyone that puts the time and effort in to write one knowing there may be no ROI. That’s the definition of courage.